By Steve Sears
Donna Andelora speaks about her son, Joey.
“Joey was the light that shined in the family. He was happy, he was humorous, he was fun, always wanted to help everybody else more so than himself. He was a very sensitive kid; if one of my other kids was feeling bad about something, he was the one who was always there.”
Joey was also smart, had dreams and goals. “He was smart, he wanted to be an engineer,” Andelora continues. “He was great at taking things apart and putting them back together and building things from a young age. In school he was always moved up in his classes. They would call me and say, ‘Mrs. Andelora, we recommend that Joey go to the next level.’ I think part of that played part in his addiction – his curiosity – he was always up for the challenge.”
Joey Andelora died of a heroin overdose when he was just 22 years old. He would’ve turned 29 in February.
Andelora, who after her son’s death founded the Lost Angels Bereavement Group for parents who have lost children to addiction, was invited to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address by Democratic Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill, whom she first met in October when she was campaigning. Andelora was invited to be part of a roundtable discussion on the opioid crisis at Blue Crest Recovery in Woodland Park. She attended the event, spoke from her heart, and made an impact. “She won the election, and I was invited, and at first was in shock. I couldn’t believe that I had received the phone call. However, after that wore off, I told myself, ‘You just got invited to the State of the Union Address, of course you’re going.’” She then called back and accepted the invite.
From 3:00 p.m. to the 9:00 p.m. Address time, she attended many receptions and was able to speak with many Congressmen and women, who told her they know of the statistics and numbers and know that it’s a problem. “I was able to voice my opinion,” she says, “and suggest what they need to work on. So, I was able to share with hopes that Congress will try to make a change. It needs to be looked at like any other disease. That was the most important thing I wanted to get across.”
“We have a big job to do.”
For Andelora, it was an honor and an unbelievable experience to be there. She did not meet the President and Vice President but did meet Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
“You don’t, early on,” says Andelora, regarding noticing a person under the influence of drugs. “When they try pills for the first time you don’t notice it, and once they become addicted, they become very good at hiding it from you. Sometimes when they’re in adolescence, it’s very hard for a parent who is not educated in addiction – which at the time, I wasn’t – to notice the difference between normal teenage behavior and abnormal behavior.” Joey started taking pills at a friend’s house. While there after school, he and his friend took a few of the pills prescribed for his friend’s Mom. “That was the beginning of him trying the pill. It was opioids; we both know how addictive it is. It only takes once or twice.”
Joey quickly became addicted to opioids, and then he and his family got into the ugliness of it. The availability of pills was no longer, so any money he had from a part-time job he spent on pills, soon on higher dosages and milligrams, and when he could buy them on the street, he started stealing money from his family, and then the opioids progressed to heroin. “They’re in denial,” says Andelora about addicts. “They lie to you and they believe their own lies.” Joey was able to handle the addiction in the beginning. He graduated high school and was set to attend Rutgers University in New Brunswick to study to be an engineer. “He never made it through his first semester,” says Andelora solemnly.
Joey attended rehab in California, New Hampshire, multiple spots in Florida, and he was well for a while, then relapsed. During this time, he’d be clean from the drug, but depression and anxiety would set in when he, realizing what he’d done to himself, the poor decision he’s made, he started battling both the addiction and the mental illness. “It’s a continuous battle, a lifetime disease,” Andelora says.
“I raised three kids the same way here in Wayne,” Andelora says. “You think teenagers would do stupid things and get in trouble for something. Yes, of course; you don’t expect your kids to be perfect. But did I ever expect one of my kids to turn to heroin and opioids? Absolutely not, and I think that’s what we have to get out there. There’s a lot of parents and families who think that they’re untouchable. We have to teach people that it’s a real disease and it can happen to you and that nobody’s immune. It’s not just an inner-city problem.”
After Joey died, Andelora searched for a bereavement group. She attended many, but felt like, in her words, “an elephant in the room in all of those groups because of the stigma of how my son died. Most of those groups were for parents who lost a child, it wasn’t just a general one, and I was uncomfortable, and I know my presence made everyone uncomfortable. Their child died from cancer or a car accident, something different. And with the stigma and the way my son died, they looked at it as ‘Your son had a choice in life, my child didn’t.’ So, I left those groups in way worse shape than I was when I started. To add to that, my family and friends, in 2012 when my son died, the heroin epidemic wasn’t all over the news and in the paper every single day the way it is now. No one knew what to say to me; no one knew how to react, so the easiest thing to do was to avoid me, not bring up Joey’s name. And that hurt – the people I thought were going to be a support system for me were not, and people I didn’t expect wound up being a good support group.”
Andelora then decided to start her own group, the Lost Angels Bereavement Group. She approached her parish, Saint Mary’s in Pompton Lakes, who asked her, “Donna, are you strong enough?” to which she responded yes, she needed to be with others, and there were others that needed to be with her. “I started the group in 2013 and for the first couple of meetings we only had a few people, there wasn’t a lot, maybe three, four, or five others. Sadly – now it’s 2019 – we have close to 50 families. We meet the first and third Thursdays of the month, there’s at least one or two new faces at every meeting, because this is continuing to happen in our community and our local surrounding communities.” Andelora adds that there is a thankfulness among attendees that the group exists. “You can feel comfortable, and say things, and not be judged. Know that there’s others in the same shoes as we are, that understand our grief, and that a parent or loved one speak freely and openly.”
“It has helped our journey of loss – the most devastating loss you can have is a child – and it’s teaching us to walk this journey of new normal that we hate. We’re there for one another: a bunch of grieving parents who have come together to make it from one day to the next and learn how to go on with a piece of our heart missing.”
Since the Lost Angels Bereavement group is for parents, Andelora’s next step may be starting a sibling’s group, for siblings who’ve lost brothers or sisters to addiction. She has been approached about it. “We need more groups.”
Wayne, via a grant, is now a Stigma-Free zone, which aids in a person with addiction feeling isolated, feeling they can’t approach someone to get needed help. The goal, per Andelora, is to make every town in New Jersey become Stigma-Free. “You get a fund or grant from the state; that’s what Wayne got, that’s what Pompton Lakes got. I think it’s so important for every town to have that, because we need to educate the communities in addiction and mental illness. Becoming Stigma-Free helps that.”
The fight doesn’t exasperate Donna Andelora. “I knew when I lost my son, I needed to be his voice for the rest of my life. He hated what happened to him. In his sober period, he came to speak at some of my support groups. Joey fought the fight as hard as he could. I also know deep in my heart that the battle was too big for him. Even though he had periods of sobriety, I didn’t think he was going to survive it.”
“I just know he would want to make a difference, and I want to make a difference. I’m just one person, but I won’t stop. I won’t stop – I’ll do whatever I can do.”
And what would Joey say to her right now? “He’d say, ‘Bravo, Mom…don’t stop.”